August 3, 2021

Dementia, illness and vallenatos: the last days of García Márquez according to his son

When Gabriel García Márquez was approaching 70 years old, his son Rodrigo asked him what he thought at night, when he turned off the light. “I think this is almost over,” the writer told him. “But there is still time. You still don’t have to worry too much, ”he added with a smile. “One day you wake up and you are old. Just like that. It’s overwhelming, ”he said.

Ten years later, the son asked again.

-The panorama since the eighties is impressive. And the end is near, ‘said the father.

-Are you afraid?

-It makes me very sad.

Rodrigo García Barcha, the elder of the two sons of the Colombian author, recounts the last days of the writer in memory Gabo and Mercedes: a farewell. The acclaimed film director, author of elegant and emotional films such as Just by looking at her, tells with delicacy and sobriety the final moments of García Márquez: the way in which the great star of Latin American fiction, probably the most popular writer in the world, began to fade.

Based in Los Angeles, where he has developed his career, one morning in March 2014 Rodrigo García received news of concern from his mother, on the phone from Mexico City. The writer had caught a cold, was not eating, and did not want to get up. García Márquez had already faced cancer in the late 1990s, but this time his wife saw it differently. “He is no longer the same. He’s listless, ”he told her. “We did not get out of this,” was his intuition.

The cold led to pneumonia and García Márquez had to be hospitalized. And although it responded well to treatment, examinations revealed shadows that suggested malignant tumors. Finally, the oncologist recommended taking him home, so that everything would be easier for him and for everyone.

By then, the writer’s memory was dissipating. He was 87 years old. He lived in the present, “without the burden of the past, free of expectations about the future,” writes the son. Still, he sometimes asked, “Where are we going tonight? Let’s go to a fun place. Let’s Dance. Why? Why not?”.

Memory loss was a very difficult process, says Rodrigo García. The writer who had built his work from his memory, transfiguring it with fiction, was aware that his memories were disintegrating, and he suffered because of it: “I work with my memory. Memory is my tool and my raw material. I can’t work without her, help me ”, he begged insistently.

Although he recognized his wife, and used to call her Meche, La Madre, or La Madre Santa, there were times when she seemed a stranger to him. “Why is this woman here giving orders and running the house if it is not mine?” He asked. “It’s not him, Mom,” the children used to say to Mercedes, “it’s dementia.”

García Márquez and Mercedes Barcha portrayed by Helmut Newton.

The children also stopped recognizing them. He looked at them curiously, sympathetically, but they were already indecipherable faces.

-Who are those people in the next room? he asked his assistant.

-Their children.

-Really? Those men? Shit Is incredible.

Sometimes his memory seemed to come back suddenly and took him far away, to the town of Aracataca, where he lived with his grandfather, Colonel Nicolás Márquez. It said: “This is not my house. I want to go to my home. To my dad’s. I have a bed next to him ”. Then García Márquez was once again an eight-year-old boy who slept on a mattress next to his grandfather’s bed, whom he stopped seeing in 1935.

Nicolás Márquez was the model that inspired the figure of Colonel Aureliano Buendía, from One hundred years of loneliness. In mid-1966, when he was working on the novel, García Márquez went to the room where his wife was and announced, with regret: “I killed the colonel.”

Rodrigo García remembers these episodes while he watches his father, already settled in bed at home. The first days he has moments of lucidity and even good humor, but little by little he enters a persistent dream. “I stand at the foot of the bed and look at him, deteriorated as he is, and I feel at the same time his son (his little boy) and his father,” he notes.

He was one of the world’s most celebrated authors, a friend of political leaders and high-profile public figures, but his son describes him as “quite a low-key, even introverted person.” And although he enjoyed fame, he was always suspicious of it and the idea of ​​literary success.

“He reminded us (and himself) many times over the years that Tólstoi, Proust and Borges never won the Nobel Prize, nor did three of their favorite writers: Virginia Woolf, Juan Rulfo and Graham Greene,” he writes.

He did not usually reread his books, for fear of finding them deficient, but in his later years he found them again as unknown works. “Where the hell did all this come from?” He asked his son. “Sometimes when he closed a book he would be surprised to find his portrait on the back cover, so he would open it again and try to read it again.”

He left his memoirs project unfinished Live to tell. Conceived as a trilogy, he only wrote the first volume, which spans from his childhood until his departure for Paris as a correspondent.

“Nothing interesting has happened to me after the age of eight,” he would say.

Standing in front of his bed, now the son would like to “believe that his brain, despite the dementia (and perhaps with the help of morphine), is still the cauldron of creativity that it always was. Cracked perhaps, unable to return to ideas or to sustain arguments, but still active. His imagination was always prodigiously fertile. “

The writer with his wife and their children Rodrigo and Gonzalo, in the 60s.

Time is running out. The doctor says he has no more than 24 hours left.

“The journey from Aracataca in 1927 to this day in 2014 in Mexico City is as long and extraordinary as it can be undertaken, and those dates on a tombstone could not even pretend to encompass it. From my point of view, it is one of the most fortunate and privileged lives ever lived by a Latin American. He would be the first to agree ”, writes Rodrigo García.

García Márquez loved vallenatos. Even in his last months, when he no longer understood the world, his eyes lit up when he heard a vallenato. That is why his nurses have played this music for him since he came home.

“My dad greatly admired and envied songwriters for their ability to say so much and so eloquently in so few words,” says Rodrigo, and says that while writing Love in the time of cholera, García Márquez underwent a permanent diet of love ballads.

Once, he stopped next to Rodrigo when he was watching an Elton John concert on television. García Márquez vaguely located the British singer, but the music caught him and he stayed to listen. At the end, he said, “Damn, this guy is an amazing bolero.”

At noon on April 17, 2014, the nurse tells Rodrigo:

-His heart stopped.

“I walk into the room and at first I see that my father looks the same as less than ten minutes ago, but after a few seconds I realize how wrong I am. He looks shattered, as if something had struck him down – a train, a truck, a lightning bolt – something that caused no other injuries than taking his life. I walk around the bed and approach him and curse in a low voice, ”says the son.

García Márquez on his 86th birthday.

Then Mercedes enters. The couple met when he was 14 and she was 10, and they had a 57-year marriage. She looks at García Márquez, pulls the sheet up to his chest, puts her hand on his. “Look at her face and caress her forehead and for a moment it’s impenetrable. Then he shudders for a moment and bursts into tears. ‘Poor thing, right?’ Even before his own pain, he feels deep compassion for him. “

It is Holy Thursday. The same day that Ursula Iguarán, one of the characters in One hundred years of loneliness, a very hot day that led the birds to break “the metal screens of the windows to die in the bedrooms.” That same morning a bird had fallen dead on the chair where the writer used to rest.

As the news of the world report on his death and review his literary achievements, García Márquez is prepared for his trip to the funeral home. They put make-up on him, groom his mustache and put him on a stretcher. “Have a good trip, Don Gabriel”, the employees of the house say goodbye. “Unlike the death a while ago or the cremation that will take place that same night, the feelings regarding this moment lack mystery. They hurt to the bone: he leaves the house and will never return ”, reflects his son.

For years, Rodrigo García denied the evidence that some of the most important decisions of his life responded in some way to the presence of his father. “I didn’t realize until well into my forties that my decision to live and work in Los Angeles and in English was a deliberate, if unconscious, choice to make my own way out of the sphere of influence of my father’s success.” , He says. But he acknowledges that “no director, writer or poet – no painting or song – has influenced me more than my parents, my brother, my wife, my daughters. Almost everything worth knowing is still learned at home ”.

At the funeral home Rodrigo has the last moment next to the body of the writer. “In that state of placid repose, his features do not reveal signs of dementia,” he observes. In his serene features he still recognizes the infinite curiosity, lucidity and concentration capacity that he always envied him and that allowed him to work sacredly every morning.

Minutes later, the cremation begins.

“The image of my father’s body entering the crematorium is mind-boggling and anesthetic. It is both pregnant and meaningless. The only thing I can feel with any certainty at the time is that he’s not there at all. It continues to be the most indecipherable image of my life ”.

Then the official tribute would come, at the Palacio de Bellas Artes de México, which was attended by the presidents of Mexico and Colombia, Enrique Peña Nieto and Juan Manuel Santos, friends and family.

Mercedes Barcha with her sons Rodrigo and Gonzalo during the tribute at the Palacio de Bellas Artes de México.

Days later, in Los Angeles, Rodrigo García reviews the covers of newspapers around the world. “Once again I try to reconcile this person who appears in the press with the one with whom I spent the last weeks, sick, dying, and finally turned to ashes in a box. And with the father of my childhood, the one who eventually became my son and my brother’s ”, he notes.

The writer’s ashes were deposited in Cartagena, his favorite city, two months after his death. In August 2020 Mercedes Barcha died. “The death of the second parent is like looking through a telescope one night and no longer finding a planet that was always there,” says Rodrigo García.

At some point the filmmaker’s son doubts whether to publish these impressions. Then he remembers that “one of the things that García Márquez hated most about death was the fact that it would be the only facet of his life that he could not write about. Everything that he had lived, witnessed and thought was in his books, turned into fiction or encryption. ‘If you can live without writing, don’t write,’ he used to say. I am among those who cannot live without writing, so I trust that he would forgive me ”.